What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

Is there really a God who created everything?Remember the 2011 film Anonymous that questioned the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays? It argued that William Shakespeare was just a front man for the true author, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. Modern historians have proposed several candidates besides Shakespeare himself, who some have argued was illiterate.

So we don’t know who was perhaps the most famous and influential author in the English language? Shakespeare only died in 1616, we have a good understanding of the times, and he wrote in Early Modern English, and yet there remains a gulf of understanding that we can’t reliably cross.

And we flatter ourselves that we can cross the far more daunting gulf that separates us from the place and times of Jesus so we can accept the far more incredible claims of the gospel story.

Let’s see how reliable our modern New Testament is. We’ll follow it back in time to track the tortuous journey on which it has come. This post will go back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, and later posts will explore the hurdles between that point and the life of Jesus.

Our first step is to get past the translations. In English, we have dozens of versions—New International Version, American Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, and so on. Some Christians prefer the more archaic King James Version even to the point of arguing that it alone is divinely inspired. Proponents of different versions find plenty to argue about.

Translation is especially difficult with a dead language like New Testament Greek since text examples are limited and there are no living speakers to consult. Consider an English example: the idiom “have your cake and eat it too” interpreted 2000 years in the future. Or “saving face” or “kick the bucket” or “throw in the towel” or “get your comeuppance.” If given only a handful of examples, future interpreters would have to guess at the meanings.

Let’s look at similar problems in the Bible. Consider the Hebrew word reem, translated nine times in the King James Version as “unicorn.” For example, “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the reem.” It’s now translated as “wild ox,” so perhaps we’ve got this one resolved. But what other rarely used words and phrases have been misunderstood? With no authority, we have nothing more than our best guesses to rely on.

A bigger question is: what is “the Bible”? That is, what is canonical, the books accepted as scripture? The Christian church is not unified on this question. For example, Protestants accept the fewest books. The Roman Catholics add two books of Maccabees and Tobit (and others), the Greek Orthodox church accepts those and adds the Prayer of Manasseh and Esdras (and others), and the Ethiopian Orthodox church accepts those and adds Enoch and Jubilees (and others). In other words, Christian churches themselves can’t agree on what books contain the inspired word of God.

Our next challenge is to find the best original-language copies. The King James version was based on the 16th-century Textus Receptus (“received text”), which was a printed version of the best Greek New Testament texts known at the time. More Greek manuscripts have come to light since then, and modern scholars rely on a broader set, so let’s discard the Textus Receptus and focus on those instead.

Many apologists point proudly to the thousands of New Testament manuscript copies we have today—roughly 5000 Greek manuscripts and lectionaries (collections of scripture used during church services) and close to 20,000 manuscripts in other languages (mostly Latin, but also Ethiopic, Slavic, Syriac, and more). This compares with just 600 copies of the Iliad, our second-most well-represented ancient book.

These are impressive numbers, but too much is made of them. Many of these are incomplete fragments—especially the oldest and most important—and almost all are far removed from the early church period. Suppose scholars discovered a library with 1000 previously unknown Latin Bible manuscripts from the 12th century. This would be quite a find, but these late manuscripts wouldn’t override the content from the best and oldest handful. Today’s 25,000 copies tell us little more about the originals than would having only the most reliable and complete 25 copies.

While there are fragments of gospels going back to the second century, for complete copies we go to manuscripts such as the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus. These are our oldest copies of the New Testament, and each was written in roughly 350 CE, perhaps as part of the newly approved canon from the Council of Nicaea.

We’ve still got a long way to go before the events in the life of Jesus. It’s like we’re looking the wrong way through a telescope.

Other posts in this series:

We see through a glass, darkly
(That is: we dimly see in a mirror)
— 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

Photo credit: Wikipedia

9 thoughts on “What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?

    • Thanks for the tip! I’d encouraged Bob Price to do so but didn’t hear that that had happened. I’ll have to tune in.

  1. Dr. Price mentioned your book again on the Tuesday, April 17th Bible Geek podcast. I’m glad your book’s getting some praise and recognition.

  2. Pingback: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say? (Part 2) | Cross Examined

  3. Pingback: The Bible’s Dark Ages | Cross Examined

  4. Pingback: The Truth of the Bible | Cross Examined

  5. Pingback: How Decades of Oral Tradition Produced the Gospels | Cross Examined

  6. Baptists: Please throw your Greek lexicons in the trash!

    Why do Baptist always want to go to the Greek to understand the Bible? It is as if Baptists do not trust their English Bibles: “Sorry, hold on a minute, I need to check the original Greek before we can believe that God really loves the whole world as your English Bible seems to say in John 3:16…we can only know for sure if we understand and read ancient Greek.”

    When God promised to preserve his Word…did he really mean that he would only preserve it on 2,000 year old parchment and papyrus in ancient forms of Greek and Aramaic?? Did God really intend that the only people who could REALLY know what he had to say to mankind…would be ancient Greek-educated Baptist Churchmen?? Is the non-ancient-Greek- speaking layperson sitting in the pew supposed to just shut his English language Bible and sit at the feet of these Baptist Greek scholars to learn what God couldn’t explain himself in plain, simple ENGLISH??

    Do you REALLY believe that God intended for only Baptist, Greek-speaking Churchmen to understand the Gospel? Because that is really what Baptists are saying, because the Greek scholars of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church think that Baptist Greek scholars are all WET on their positions that the Bible does not support infant baptism and that baptism MUST be by immersion!

    Is it really possible that ONLY Baptist Greek scholars truly understand ancient Greek, and that the rest of the world’s Greek scholars completely bungle the translation of the New Testament? How is that possible? It defies common sense. And if I hear another Baptist start talking about how the Greek genitive case proves that the Baptist position is correct, I swear I’m going to puke! Seriously, every time I get into a discussion about Biblical translation with a Baptist he starts in with the genitive case nonsense. If you want to understand the genitive case in a Greek document…I suggest you confer…not with a Baptist…but with a GREEK!

    Instead of all this ancient Greek nonsense, which Baptists seem to have a fixation on, I suggest that every Christian layperson do this:

    1. Obtain a copy of four different English language translations of the Bible. Read each one of these “problem passages”, as Baptists and evangelicals refer to them, in each of these English translations.
    2. God’s true meaning of the passage will be plainly understandable after comparing these four English translations.

    You do NOT need to read the ancient Greek text unless you want to delve into the study of ancient Greek sentence structure or some other nuance. God promised he would preserve his Word, and the English-speaking people of the world have had the Word of God IN ENGLISH since at least William Tyndale (1300″s??). Dear Baptists…PLEASE stop insisting on using the ancient texts to confuse Christian laypeople of God’s simple, plain message of the Gospel!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    an orthodox Lutheran blog

  7. Gary: Thanks for your comment.

    Does God love the world? Did God promise to preserve his word? It’s just a story, not history.

    Is the non-ancient-Greek- speaking layperson sitting in the pew supposed to just shut his English language Bible and sit at the feet of these Baptist Greek scholars to learn what God couldn’t explain himself in plain, simple ENGLISH??

    And yet God didn’t explain it in English. It was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, not by God’s hand but by that of ordinary men. And we don’t even have those originals but copies from centuries later.

    We’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope here.

    2. God’s true meaning of the passage will be plainly understandable

    How do you know it’s not all legend and mythology?

    God promised he would preserve his Word

    What if Odin promised he would preserve his word? Would that be compelling to you?

    This blog is just an archive. Come over to the new site to see what’s happening:

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